An interview with: Rob Davies

Our volunteer Whitney has been exploring museum roles lately and spent a few minutes chatting to Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies…

Rob delivering grapes

Rob on his morning errand delivering grapes


1. What is your job?

I have two roles. The first is to look after the volunteers and my other role is to work on the activity plan which involves engaging with different communities around Reading, and different rural communities around the country.

2. How has your job changed since the museum closed for redevelopment?

My job has changed significantly. It used to be entirely focused on managing the volunteer programme but we’ve now recruited an Assistant volunteer co-ordinator, Rhiannon, who does that. I now support my colleague Phillippa who is the Audience Development Manager. We are currently working to engage community groups with the new museum when we re-open.

3. Are there specific community groups you work with regularly?

Yes, there are several, for example Reading Mencap, The Three Cooks, the Rising Sun Arts Centre and Reading Chinese Association.

 4. Do you think museums are doing a good job with working with communities and integrating into society in general?

I think it’s a case to case basis. I think with the changes in the country as well as with government and funding, museums are now reaching out to their communities so there is a lot being done in the sector as a whole. Here in particular we’re doing loads.

5. What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

We often see people volunteer with us and then move on to a career they want to go in to, which is brilliant. Another aspect is meeting all the different people in Reading, getting them involved and working with them.

 6. What is the most challenging part of your job?

It can be quite exhausting so I do get tired quite a lot in the evenings. I find myself having to go to bed earlier because I’m also running about and having too much fun in the day!

7. What have you been up to this week?

This week has been a great week. Yesterday I was at an annual general meeting for the charity Reading Voluntary Action. I’m a Trustee, but we also work with them here so we often recruit volunteers through them and use them for campaigning and support. I have also been chatting to a few community groups as well as putting plans together for our future allotments.

8. Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on?

At the moment I am working on the Sew Engaging project. We’re asking community groups to do some tapestry based on what they think the countryside is and I’m currently working on the MERL film project which is coming soon, along with the garden and allotment projects.

9. What does your normal day to day look like?

I usually get in around 8:30am after cycling in so normally I have to get my suit on and then I make a cup of tea for the team. Then I go through emails and start work. Often I find myself running off to a meeting or about to head off with Philippa to a community group somewhere in Reading.

10. What do you love about working at MERL?

I’ve been here for five years and haven’t wanted to leave. There is such an amazing staff and volunteer spirit in the building that embodies the work ethic. Everybody works so well and is passionate about what they do. Also the collections are amazing. I do admittedly have a soft spot for the Mills and Boon books in the Special Collections!

11. Any tips for anyone wanting to work in a museum?

Volunteer with your local museum, archive or National Trust Property. Be willing to put in time. Try out a variety of roles as well because you might think you want to go into curating but actually you’re better suited to marketing or community engagement. Build good relationship with museum professionals as they will point you in the right direction. You can also do Museums Studies as part of your degree which we offer at University of Reading.

Volunteers voice: Meet Rhiannon

Hello, I’m Rhiannon Watkinson the new Assistant Volunteer Coordinator here at MERL. Having been in the post a little over a month now, and no longer getting quite so lost in the maze that is the museum, it seems time to introduce myself.

I’m a Reading local and have just returned to the area after completing a Masters degree in Nineteenth Century Studies in London and am loving working in museum that I was taken to as a child. I have previously worked at The Florence Nightingale Museum in Lambeth where I was involved in the presentation of an art installation entitled ‘And the Band Played On…’ which was focused around waxworks of wounded soldiers. I also volunteer for the National Trust as a room guide at Grey’s Court so know first-hand the joys, and unfortunately sometimes issues, that volunteers face.


Rhiannon knows the way to the volunteers’ hearts!

The best way to describe my job is to tell you all the things I most enjoy about it which centres around the different groups of people I get to work with. The best thing about working as a volunteer coordinator is the sheer variety in my day! Rob and I are responsible for not only MERL volunteers but those from the other University of Reading collections; such as the Ure Museum and the Cole Museum to name just two. I am already involved in training tour guides for the Cole Museum which is one of my favourite parts of the week; not least because I’m learning so many weird and wonderful facts about the animals on display there. For example, I bet you didn’t know that Giant Spider crabs have skeletons of such breadth that they would collapse if they tried to walk on land!

            MERL volunteers performing at Reading Library

MERL volunteers performing at Reading Library

Another volunteer group that I am enjoying working with are the Swing Riot group. During my time here I have been to several rehearsals of their self-penned play about the Berkshire Swing Riots, even stepping into a role when required! I was thrilled to get to see the play in its full glory with props and costumes (my favourite being an especially fetching knitted judges wig) when they performed recently at Reading Library. It is great that volunteers are still getting the word out about our local rural history even though the museum is closed. I’m also looking into us staging more performances of the play so keep a look out for that in the near future.

Having student volunteers from the University of Reading is extremely important for the museum and having been a student myself not so long ago I am really keen to give them the best experience possible. Some new student volunteers are helping with the Astor Project which will allow people to digitally search for items from Nancy Astor’s archive that we have here at MERL. As well the volunteers work being hugely useful the snippets of information thrown up through Nancy Astor’s correspondence are fascinating. We’ve seen letters asking for everything from support for the Tasmanian Temperance Society, requests to open village bazaars and correspondence about a meeting ominously entitled ‘Moral Hygiene’.

I’m really looking forward to meeting even more volunteers over the coming weeks and enjoying even more of the variety that my job has to offer. Finally, a big thanks to everyone, staff and volunteers, for being immensely welcoming and making me feel at home at MERL so quickly.

Volunteers’ Voice #9 – Planning ahead

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, shares some tips for planning a volunteer programme…

At the beginning of each year I sit down and think about what the New Year will hold for the volunteer programme and the volunteers. I make three lists:

  1. Beyond my wildest dreams
  2. Let’s be realistic here
  3. What can the volunteer programme do to further support UMASCS (University Museums & Special Collections Service)

I don’t show anyone these lists but they stay at the back of my mind whilst planning and forward thinking. With an already busy 2014 ahead, not just for the volunteer programme but for MERL and UMASCS as a whole, I contemplate and prepare.

In the list below I have highlighted some of the planning methods I use which might help you prepare your own volunteer programme for the New Year…

  • Think about what you did last year
    • What worked?
    • What didn’t work?
    • Will you do it again this year? How it will be different?
  • Do you have any partnership projects on the horizon? How will they affect your volunteer programme?
  • Are your volunteers happy? Have you asked them? What more can you do to make their volunteering a more pleasant and enjoyable experience?
  • How much budget will you have this year? How are you going to make the most of it?
  • Have you thought about the staff? Are they happy with their volunteers? Is there anything you can do to support them further?
  • Create a timetable highlighting busy periods for your organisation and volunteers. My timetable marks out events where volunteer support is needed, learning activities and major projects. I also mark in days of recruitment and career fayres, important meetings (not just for volunteers but for myself) and anything else that may take a lot of time.

Whilst planning and thinking about the above, I always have two words in bright bold letters on my white board; they are coincidentally Scar’s motto from the Lion King “Be Prepared”.  Always think ahead of each project, activity and day, be ready for whatever may come your way and always have the kettle on. If you’re planned and ready, the volunteers will enjoy their time with you, they’ll deliver more and stay with your organisation for longer.

Be prepared

MERL at the MA conference #2: Our Volunteer Coordinator’s view

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator, writes up the session he led on ‘overcoming fears of working with volunteers’at the Museums Association conference…

I was one of a small group of colleagues from MERL who attended the MA conference earlier this month. I was there to lead a session entitled ‘Overcoming your fears of working with volunteers.’ The session was devised to extract concerns about working with volunteers, explore them and discuss how to combat those worries.

We began with some group work when each group was given a few children’s comics to create and visualise their fears of working with volunteers. This encouraged conversation and discussion between colleagues, as well as giving me a foundation to bottom out people’s worries and concerns.

One of the fears that arose was: “How do you address volunteers who do not dress appropriately for their role?” My answer to this was to use role descriptions and state in those that there is a dress code required to fulfil the role, also use training and induction to install a dress code. If a volunteer persists to dress unsuitably then you are within your rights to ask them to alter their dress code for the role.

From this point another discussion arose and that was the use of volunteer agreements. There is some debate in the voluntary sector over the use of these. A volunteer agreement is a signed document between the volunteer and a member of staff, stating that they are aware of what is expected of both of them. At the University Museums and Special Collections (UMASCS) at Reading we do not use volunteer agreements as I prefer not to enter anything that may be considered contractual; however there is lots of advice on how to write a volunteer agreement without using language that may possibly implicate a legal contract. We do, however, have one agreement form used by archive volunteers who may be volunteering with confidential data. This form states that they are aware of the nature of the material they are handling and that they are not at liberty to talk about it. The conclusion of this discussion was that the use of volunteer agreements are at times necessary for the role required.

Another fear that arose was: “Volunteer supervisors and managers are concerned about the length of time a volunteer stays within an organisation and sometimes it is hard to let go.”  My response to this issue was to suggest creating volunteer projects set within time restraints therefore managing expectations. I also suggested the use of role descriptions to manage time limits and volunteer responsibilities.

After my interactive element of the session, I invited Amanda Lightstone, Opening Doors Project Coordinator from the University of Cambridge Museums, and Gemma Waters, Museum Development Officer from Cumberland House Portsmouth, to talk about their experiences of working with volunteers. They provided anecdotal presentations about their work and explored good practice regarding recruiting and retaining volunteers.

I like to think the session left everyone feeling enthused and invigorated about working with volunteers!

If anyone has any concerns or worries about working with volunteers in Museums, I’d be happy to answer your queries below or you can contact me at r.j.davies[at]


Volunteers’ Voice #7 – Tour guides

Volunteer Coordinator, Rob Davies, talks about working with volunteer tour guides to make guided tours at MERL more interactive and engaging…

I had a meeting with my volunteer tour guide team last week which prompted me to dedicate this post to volunteer tour guides. Tours are an excellent way in which museums engage with visitors, bringing the collections alive and making the visitor experience all the more memorable. MERL has an excellent volunteer tour guide team who really are an asset to the museum. Volunteer tour guides are students, graduates, post graduates and members of the local community.

The team provides general 40 minute tours around the museum on weekends and for booked groups during the week. A special part of the weekend tours is a visit to the object store on the mezzanine floor, which is otherwise closed to visitors. This is where we keep all the objects that are not on open display and it’s a great opportunity for visitors to see behind the scenes. When I joined MERL in July 2010 there were only three guides who were providing all the weekend tours and they were using a set script. The small team was struggling and needed support. I set up bi-monthly meetings with the team which still continue.   I recruited new volunteers from the student body and the local community to boost the withering numbers of the team. At these meetings we discuss any problems, organise the rotas and it is a good excuse for a bit of socialising between the team.

The script had originally been devised by a consultant to highlight the main themes of the new galleries when MERL moved to new premises, and was designed to provide background information about the collections. From talking to the tour guides I realised the script was no longer working for training purposes or for the visitor experience. It was hard to allow for interaction between the tour guide and their group, or to tailor a tour to the interests of  the group.  So we decided to take a new approach. In order to personalise the experience, new volunteers are now encouraged to choose objects they would like to talk about within their tour.  The Museum is divided into sections and they choose a set number of objects from each section. They then research the stories behind their chosen objects. Each guide gives a slightly different tour but this means that the tour guide is interested in the objects they are talking about and that translates into enthusiasm and passion which hopefully rubs off onto the visitors.

The tour guide team on a CREW training day

The tour guide team on a CREW training day

To assist with the facilitation of training new guides and the implementation of the new tours, we used CREW who helped us to explore new ideas, increase our confidence, mould us as a team and think about where we as a team are going.  Since then we haven’t looked back; the team has continued to grow with new guides being trained at the start every academic year, which continues to boost the team bringing new life, ideas and providing visitors with more exciting tours.

Volunteers’ Voice #5 – Gardening at MERL

In this month’s Volunteers’ Voice, Volunteer Co-ordinator Rob Davies gives some background on some gardening at MERL and enlists the help of our two of our gardening volunteers to explain how they have helped create bee-friendly habitats in the MERL gardens…

We have an outstanding volunteer gardening team who come, rain or shine, to tend to our gardens. We have a series of plots which have a different theme every year. In the past we have had a war-time garden, white borders and a myriad of tulips.

Tulips and  volunteers March 2012

Tulips and volunteers March 2012

Our volunteer garden team also have worked on the National Lottery Project ‘A Green Welcome’ which has transformed our dull uninviting front garden into a welcoming and wildlife friendly space. We worked with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) on this project, they are an inspirational organisation who work with volunteers on sites across Reading. I certainly learnt a lot from them, in particular how to make hurdle!

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

Volunteers working on the front garden as part of the Big Lottery funded project

This year we opted for plants that encourage bees. With the national decline in the bee population, we have themed our plots not only to attract and support bees but also to encourage visitors to the museum to do the same.

Below, two of gardening volunteers, Tony and Roger have described the work they have done but also talk about the Bee World project which is being coordinated by the Friends of the Earth.

The “Bee World” is an idea that is being promoted by Friends of the Earth. According to their website, Bee Worlds are havens of wildflowers in urban and rural spaces. They provide essential food and shelter for bees, and help reverse the trend of declining bee populations in the UK. To find out more about Bee Worlds, you can download a Bee World Information Pack from the Friends of the Earth website, or borrow a copy to use during your visit to MERL.

Our Bee Project at MERL has been set up to show you what you can do in your own garden to help bees – whether by leaving a part of your garden to nature’s care, or by growing a variety of flowers and vegetables that provide food for bees. Remember, bees are like people, they need somewhere to live, and regular meals.

Bee friendly plot

Bee friendly plot

Here are some of the things we have done to help bees in the MERL garden:

  1. Half-hardy annuals. After the first of three beds of roses, Bed 1 nearest to the main entrance to the gardens was used to grow flowering plants that were bought from White Tower Nursery at Aldermaston. These are mostly half-hardy annuals (raised under glass and planted out as soon as spring frosts are over) plus a few perennials. They all have one thing in common: they are attractive to bees of many species.
  2. Hardy annual mixtures. Bed 2 was divided into four sections and annual flower seed sown directly into the ground in early April. They were covered in permeable horticultural fleece to conserve moisture and maintain warmth in the early days of the spring. Four mixtures of annual flowers were grown: “Wildflower Honey Bee-friendly mixture”, “Butterfly mixture”, “Fragrant mixture” and “Fairy mixture”.Germination was excellent and by mid June many of the species in the four mixtures from Thompson and Morgan had begun to come into flower. The results were quite startling in the range of species, flower type and colour (we have still not identified many of them yet!). This wide range of species is a most important factor in supporting the population of various pollinating insects since the flowering period of so many species differs. The length of time that they were in flower was very satisfying and the later part of the summer weather was just what they needed. These beds in particular seemed to be alive with insect life for the whole summer. It is also a very inexpensive way of covering odd sunny corners of gardens with colour and interest. At the same time, they provide pollinating insects with a source of nectar and pollen during their most active period.
  3. Vegetables. We also grew runner beans, french beans and broad beans as examples of vegetables that bees pollinate. Difficult weather conditions this year meant that the early broad beans germinated badly in the wet part of the early summer and had to be sown again. The next sowing merely provided an excellent food source for black aphids as the hot weather tightened its grip. Detergent spray was used with a suitable level of outrage but ensured only cleaner-looking aphids. That’s horticulture!

You can see more pictures of the bee friendly beds at MERL on our Flickr page

MERL and the Great British Sewing Bee

written by Claire Smith, Visitor Services Assistant & Learning Assistant


Great British Sewing Bee

Did you watch the Great British Sewing Bee? I’ll admit that I was sceptical at first, not being a fan of “reality” television, but I have to confess I’ve been glued to every episode, and was delighted to see Ann’s years of experience win her the trophy. As a dressmaker myself, I’ve been very impressed by the wide range of skills demonstrated by each of the participants, and their ability to stay calm under pressure.

I first became involved at MERL thanks to my passion for sewing. I visited one weekend, and was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a guided tour that took us into one of the museum’s open storage areas, where I was able to see the extent of the smock collection. I wrote a post about it on my own blog, and was contacted by the Assistant Curator who invited me to get involved as a volunteer. A week or so later I found myself working in the museum alongside another volunteer, helping to record the measurements and condition of all of the smocks.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the fact that because most of the museum’s smocks pre-date the domestic sewing machine, they’re almost all made entirely by hand – not only the smocking and embroidery, but also the long, functional seams. When I tried my hand at a bit of smocking for myself, I was surprised by just how slowly the work progressed. You certainly couldn’t run up a smock in the measly four hours allocated to the Sewing Bee finalists to make a modern man’s shirt!

Close-up of smock

Close-up of a smock from the MERL collections

A couple of weeks ago at MERL we were delighted to host a group of visitors from New Stitches Magazine, all of whom had been watching the Sewing Bee with great interest, and were fascinated not only by the range of objects we were able to show them from our textile collections, but also with our sewing machines, which range from domestic models to very specialised industrial equipment. My personal favourites from the objects brought out for the group are the Dorset Buttons – another hand-sewing technique that I tried out after having seen the collections for myself.

It’s four years since my first visit to MERL, where I now work as Learning Assistant and Visitor Services Assistant. My experience volunteering with the smock collection led directly to me volunteering in other areas of the museum that I also found interesting, and now part of my role is to create family craft activities which are inspired by the museum’s collections.

The sewing machines, smocks and other textiles collections are currently housed in our object stores on the mezzanine level at the museum. Currently, the only way to access those collections is to come on a guided tour and ask your tour guide to include the store in your tour, or if you wish to study the collections in more details, to make an appointment with a Curator. It’s a shame they are not currently more accessible, but as part of the Our Country Lives project we’ll be looking at ways that these fascinating collections can be incorporated into the main displays. The more interest there is in them, the more likely this is to happen, so leave a comment & let us know if you’d like to see more of the textile treasures.

So if the Great British Sewing Bee has inspired you to dust off your sewing machine and have a go, why not come and see the MERL smocks? Who knows where it might lead you!


Volunteers’ Voice #1 – Introducing Rob and the MERL volunteers!

written by Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator.


Hello and welcome to my first post. I’m Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator at MERL. I have been working with volunteers for the past four years in various organisations, from community radio stations to museums.

Rob Davies, VOlunteer Coordinator with Jen Woodams and Kaye Gough, two long-standing MERL volunteers

Rob Davies, Volunteer Coordinator with Jen Woodams and Kaye Gough, two long-standing MERL volunteers


I work with volunteers across UMASCS (University of Reading’s Museums and Special Collections Service) which consists of the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), The Cole Museum of Zoology, The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology, the Typography department and the Special Collections –  so the roles and volunteers are vast and varied.

In these posts I’ll be focussing mainly on volunteering at MERLVolunteers are the life and soul of our organisation. Without our dedicated team of volunteers we would not be able to deliver half of what we do. Our volunteer profile ranges from students, graduates and volunteers from the local community. Volunteers carry out a range of roles and work on all kinds of projects, including tour guiding, gardening, archiving, collections support and marketing.


Staff and volunteers at MERL celebrate achieving the Investing in Volunteers award with Sire David Bell, Vice-chancellor of the University of Reading

Staff and volunteers at MERL celebrate achieving the Investing in Volunteers Standard with Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading


In April 2012 we were awarded the Investing in Volunteers Standard by Volunteering England. This is a nationally recognised standard that states we employ good practice within our volunteer programme. We are constantly striving to improve and develop our volunteer programme, provide new opportunities for volunteers and work with partner organisations. I have recently completed an Arts Council England joint skill sharing project with Portsmouth Museums Archives and Visitors Services.

The purpose of this regular feature on the Our Country Lives blog is to share my experiences of working with volunteers at MERL, to highlight the work they do to support our activities and showcase their achievements. The volunteers will be playing a huge part throughout the Our Country Lives project. In the early consultation stages, I will be training as many as possible to help with audience research, so you may meet more of them in the Museum (and further afield!). Their own views will also be important as they are an vital stakeholder group. I may even be able to persuade some of them to contribute to this feature!

I hope you enjoy my posts on the world of volunteering. I welcome your thoughts and feedback so if there is anything you would like me to discuss in future posts please let me know.